From jail to stage - reforming prisoners through cultural therapy

By Sabyasachi Roy, IANS
Wednesday, December 8, 2010

KOLKATA - Once hardened criminals and now do-gooders for all of society, Nigel Akkara alias Vikki and Debashis Chakraborty bring to life in more ways than one the old age story of robber Ratnakar who metamorphosed into sage Valmiki.

Leaving behind long years spent in jail, Vikki now runs a business while Chakraborty is a sculptor.

Both of them have been regular performers in Rabindranath Tagore’s opera “Valmiki Prathiba” (the genius of Valmiki). “Even today they are allowed to perform in public performances of ‘Valmiki Prathiba’ with other inmates,” Additional Director General (Correctional Services) B.D. Sharma told IANS.

The credit for their return to normal life goes to ‘cultural therapy’ that the West Bengal Correctional Services implemented for prisoners.

Chakraborty, whose sculpture ‘peace plaque’ was presented to President Pratibha Patil in 2008, is now working as associate sculptor with eminent artist Chitta Dey in the “Pakhi Pahar” project in Ayodhya Hills of Purulia district.

Vikki, who spent eight years behind bars, has passed out from the prestigious St. Xaviers. He has given employment to many freed prisoners in his company, which helps its clients do everyday things like obtaining gas cylinders or paying phone bills.

“He is also working with the Regional Institute of Correctional Administration, thus helping other inmates to develop confidence and self-respect,” Sharma said.

“Valmiki Pratibha” was chosen as it traces the transformation of Ratnakar from a dreaded dacoit to a sage. “There was a real life parallel in the theme by way of the prisoners’ journey from darkness to light, from ignorance to knowledge of the performing arts.”

Besides “Valmiki Prathibha”, the inmates of various prisons across West Bengal have enacted another Tagore dance drama, “Tasher Desh”. So far, they have given more than 50 public performances across the state and other cities like Delhi and Bhubaneswar.

West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, Chief Justice of India K.G. Balakrishnan and other dignitaries have all watched and appreciated the performances.

The cultural therapy programme has recently added theatre to its repertoire, with Tagore’s “Ashoka”, “Tota Kahini” and the audio-drama “Sheser Kabita” performed by prisoners. The project has branched out into other artistic areas as well.

Besides enacting dance dramas, the inmates also take part in other cultural activities like recitation, painting and sculpture. Eminent persons like theatre director Pradip Bhattacharya, Odissi danseuse Alokanada Roy, artist Chitta Dey and elocutionist Bratati Bandyopadhyay were engaged from time to time to train the inmates in workshops held at various correctional homes.

Said Alokananda Roy: “It was a great experience for me to train the inmates. I was initially asked to train the women inmates but after looking at the boys I asked him whether they could be allowed to dance. Initially, I found they were not enjoying the dance. Then I introduced martial dance and folk dance, which was heartily accepted by the men.”.

Music company SaReGaMa India has also brought out an audio CD titled “Andhokarer Utso Hote” (From the Depths of Darkness) containing classical Bengali poetry recited by the prisoners.

The inmates have also held art exhibitions.

“These creative vehicles of art, dance, music, poetry and theatre have brought about unimaginable psychological and physiological uplift of prisoners. A sense of self-respect and confidence is growing among the prisoners. The funds for these activities are generated by the sales of their paintings and sculptures as well as tickets to the performances that they give,” said Sharma, the main architect of the programme.

The project was first mooted in 2006, but there was opposition from unions of the jail staff. But the authorities used the “parole” concept to take the prisoners out for public performances, perhaps for the first time ever.

Sharma said: “I have already prepared a draft to make the cultural therapy an institutional form for the inmates as it has brought about innumerable changes in the annals of prison reform. The draft will be submitted before the government any time from now for sanction. If it happens, participating in cultural activities for the inmates will be a regular feature.”

“Apart from trust building and promoting family values among them, the unique by-product of the cultural therapy was establishment of a prisoners’ welfare fund. The prisoners are now generating funds and the money is being utilised for their own welfare as well as that of their family members,” Sharma added.

(Sabyasachi Roy can be contacted at

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